CHANGESCAPING | Talk | From Social Butterfly to Urban Citizen

Posted on 06/04/2011


Talk, of course, doesn’t stop in one forum. It’s viral, conversations continue and spread. Participants are now able to tweet these events as the hashtag comes into its own. Twitter is a powerful network in which to engage in or spread a public conversation about cities and place. Increasingly, conversations and ‘roundtables’ happen on Twitter, just look for simple forms of organisation like hashtags and lists. From Social Butterfly to Urban Citizen: a HCSNet workshop on social and mobile technology to support civic engagement was a researcher’s workshop and forum held at the Queensland University of Technology in 2010. The interdisciplinary workshop aimed to discuss social and mobile technologies and how they can be studied, designed and developed further to support local participation and civic engagement in urban environments.

In From Social Butterfly to Urban Citizen, there were several presentations that encouraged more open ended and heuristic – even playful – modes of civic engagements, such as networked communications that augment the experience of place and community. Some of these can be used for community consultation and participation (such as design theorist Margot Brereton’s Nnub project), and others for negotiating cultural or historical actions in a place (such as artist Kate Richards’ locative media work, Wayfarer). These projects cause consideration of the formations of civic agency via screens of all sizes: from the very personal handheld screen to the very public screen looming over the town square. While the respective projects of Schroeder and Brereton evoke a renewed optimism about the possibility of self-organising and empowered communities, the workshop as a whole seemed to grapple with ideas of civic life, new citizenship and an engaged citizenry. What can that mean in a territory as contested as the city and how can public conversations somehow untangle the contradictory expectations? Urban geography scholar Kurt Iveson spoke of graffiti in the context of contested sites and that causes some consideration of how a person makes a mark on a city, and how graffiti is or isn’t a practice of engagement or citizenship. For Iveson, there is a question of governance with an emphasis on self-governing, implying some construct of sovereignty. Citizenship is couched in terms of responsibility throughout several presentations, but there is another layer of questioning that indicates that these are not simple propositions – How do we take responsibility for responsibility? How do we participate in participation? Iveson proposes an idea of ‘responsibilisation’, which asserts that responsibility is not some end state but rather involves a process of negotiation potentially akin to a game.

Cities are big, diverse and in most instances sprawling. So unless a case is being made that technologies can overwrite, even flatten, that diversity, then the ideas of ubicomp and pervasive technologies needs to be understood in all their fractious possibility. Could, for example, researcher Ronald Schroeter’s ideal of a large public screen work in a privatised space of a suburban shopping centre? There is so little truly civic space in suburban areas where public life can unfold and happen. While mobile narratives have brought interactive storytelling to the public realm of a recently established inner urban village as well as a precinct development for the town centre of a regional town, could it work in greenfields like North Lakes with its tumbling topography of privatised and diffused space? Or can it really only work when there is some infrastructure like a community centre or library to plug into the socius? Do some technologies or applications of technology require a finer urban grain when interfacing with the physical forms of the city? Perhaps then, Margo Brereton’s Nnub is a more appropriate means of mediating social interaction in more scattered suburban areas: a smaller screen in a smaller space (such as a shop in Moggill, Brisbane). It seems to work for those suburban communities where it’s been trialled and used: intimacy in the fragmented and dispersed topography of the suburban and peri-rural. These questions need some redress otherwise there is a risk of reiterating the suburban and urban divide through such research.

In discussions about how urban informatics can connect, reinscribe and represent the city, discussion about and attention to urban form seems to disappear. Working materially in physical spaces in sometimes abstract ways, urban planners and designers might have difficulty grasping this – the practices of inscribing the landscape are somewhat grounded and anything above that can be treated as an overlay. Urban informatics is inherently referential to a particular kind of space or form that is understood to be urban. This implies embeddedness and requires sensibilities that consider how the city is in(form)ed and in(form)ing by or with in(form)atics and in(form)ation.  This evokes ways of knowing connecting place, people and technology. Consequently there is another question of how this research can reinvigorate planning and design practice, imbuing various professionalisms with an awareness of citizenship, culture and collaboration. Are there sufficient and appropriate lines of communication and exchange between the research sector and industry; what should those exchanges look like and do? How do these ideas filter through to the consultants, the community workers, the social entrepreneurs, the activists, the community historians and the council planners? Or perhaps, it is a given that the media itself implies reiteration or circulation: on the one hand, holding intellectual property close and, on the other, releasing it into the socially networked realm of open knowledge.

From Social Butterfly to Urban Citizen
Urban Informatics Research Lab

Posted in: changescaping, talk